Father Michael Pfleger on Tuesday used a provocative reference to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to exhort Chicago businesses to open their doors to 58,000 disconnected young people who are neither working nor in school.
“Nineteen people on 9/11 terrorized this nation. Nineteen people shut this nation down. Imagine what we in this room could do if we were as committed as they were,” Pfleger told an audience of movers-and-shakers including Mayor Rahm Emanuel during the Opportunity Youth Summit at the Chicago Cultural Center hosted by Thrive Chicago.
“We have learned how to save the whales. We’ve learned how to save the dolphins. We’ve learned how to save the exotic birds. Well damn it, it’s time to learn how to save our children.”
Pfleger argued that a “not-in-my-backyard mentality” is no longer going to work. Not when Chicago has more than 58,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who don’t have a job and are not going to school.
“We are all in this boat together. Sooner or later, it’s gonna affect you in the downtown and the North Shore if you don’t do something about it because violence has keys and it can drive anywhere at any time,” Pfleger said.
“We talk all the time about the change in the culture of the Police Department. We’ve got to change the culture of ourselves in this city to say we’re all part of this. Nobody gets a pass. Nobody can walk away or just say, `I’ll look at it from afar or pray about it.’ It’s going to demand that we target these individuals who have been discarded and disposable. We can’t just ride the tide. We’ve got to go after the places that don’t even have water.”
Thrive Chicago is a not-for-profit that has launched a campaign to get 10,000 of those disconnected young people back to work, or to school, by 2020.
That’s apparently not good enough for Pfleger, crusading pastor of Saint Sabina’s Catholic Church in Auburn-Gresham. Pfleger said it’s no accident that most of the disconnected young people live in Chicago’s 15 most violent and impoverished neighborhoods.
“It creates the perfect storm for our children to fall through the cracks of society. If you put two lions in a cage and you don’t feed them, one’s gonna kill the other. If we cage in whole communities around this country, we will see people turn on and kill one another in a survival of the fittest,” Pfleger said.
“Too many young people feel today like they are throwaways. Like they are discarded and they are disposable. These conditions have helped create a climate of violence. Our children have become…the road kill of our day.”
Pfleger exhorted Chicago businesses to open their doors to disconnected young people and break down the barriers used to keep ex-offenders out.
“It’s going to demand that we pry open the doors … and sometimes kick down the doors. Whatever we’ve got to do to make businesses and employers open up their doors to these young people,” Pfleger said.
“We’ve got to open up the doors to businesses who have closed their doors to those who have records or a past history of incarceration. We can’t keep telling somebody, ‘Do something with your life, but we’re not gonna open the door to do that.'”
Emanuel preceded Pfleger to the podium in the ornate Preston Bradley Hall.
The mayor talked about the 31,000 job and internship opportunities he’s creating this summer and about the new crowd-funding component that will allow the general public to donate money to the mission of getting kids off the streets.
Once again, the city has been forced to go it alone with private support, but no other government help.
“The federal government and the state government [are] A.W.O.L. on supporting our kids,” the mayor said.
“It’s time that everybody else walks out of here and makes sure that Springfield puts their money where their mouth is when it comes to our kids and the federal government as well. They have basically walked back year after year in supporting kids.”
Emanuel closed by talking about the email he got last summer from the exhilarated young man he met at a job fair at Malcolm X College. The nervous teen had met the mayor minutes before his first job interview. A few hours later, he wrote an email to the mayor to say that he got the job.
“He had given up on himself. And that job and that yes that he got back meant that he did not need to give up on himself because others did not give up on him,” the mayor said.
“We use the term ‘disconnected youth.’ But just think of yourself or your own children. If they weren’t in school, if they weren’t in work, what definition do they have? What sense of themselves do they have? … It is the question [with] which we define who we are and what we are about. And if you can’t answer that question if you’re a young person, you are rootless. You are not connected to the larger value system of what we call society.”